Noughts and Crosses: A Resonant Adaptation

Tuesday 2nd April 2019 at York Theatre Royal.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Malorie Blackman’s hugely popular and deeply resonant novel Noughts and Crosses makes its way to the stage thanks to Pilot Theatre. Blackman’s work is adapted for the stage by Sabrina Mahfouz and directed by Esther Richardson, with some mixed results but undeniable power.

Noughts are at the bottom of the ladder. They are kept there by Crosses who have all the power, the wealth and the influence. There’s clear racial division, but wrapped up within that injustice are all manner of additional betrayals, forcing people to live as less than in the worlds of education to economic status and beyond. Sound familiar? Good. It’s a story with painful relevance which remains popular for that same fact. The story explores the impact of societal divides and injustice on the most innocent of relationships: those of children just beginning to develop a sense of who they are.

We see Sephy, daughter of an influential politician and Callum, son of Sephy’s family’s maid enjoy a friendship which blossoms towards romance. But they live in a society where such a thing is not only frowned upon, but it’s downright dangerous. As Sephy and Callum get closer, the chasm between their families and the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality grows ever stronger. There are huge obstacles to be overcome…

It’s a gripping narrative with plenty of gravity within the subject matter and Heather Agyepong and Billy Harris are excellent leads as Sephy and Callum. As a pairing they manage to bring two much beloved conflicted characters into being with all their best traits intact. Their connection is thoroughly convincing, as is their conflict.

Agyepong gives a gritty, moving and often gently funny performance spanning the innocence to the rude awakening of this privileged but principled character. Harris too manages to communicate with great power and passion the development of Callum from sweet young boy with a good heart to the product of life’s challenges.

Neither Sephy nor Callum enjoy an easy time either at home or at school. Doreene Blackstock plays Jasmine, Sephy’s less than adequate mother with a sobering authority thinly masking her tragic truth. Chris Jack takes the role of Sephy’s equally ineffectual father, Kamal and depicts this patriarchal figure with an unshakeable imperiousness.

The trying sister, Minerva (Kimisha Lewis), doesn’t exactly prove to be the anchor Sephy needs either. Lewis is a clear stand-out in this production for me, giving excellent performances in each of her various roles; from prissy sister to vicious bully to officious, capable lawyer, she impresses in different ways with each characterisation and has great stage presence.

Callum’s home life may be marginally better, with a father who is incredibly ambitious for him (Daniel Copeland) and a loving, affectionate mother (Lisa Howard). His brother Jude (Jack Condon) is cause for concern though, as is his vulnerable sister whom we never meet. Condon impresses as the unwitting victim of circumstance and both Copeland and Howard give the powerless parents ‘salt of the earth’ foundations, taking us on their journey of struggle while inspiring sympathetic ears.

There are problematic elements within the successes of this production. Designer Simon Kenny gives us a surreal backdrop of red multi-functional panelling and token set pieces, which works increasingly well as the narrative progresses towards battle stations. Joshua Drualus Pharo’s Lighting conjures rooms from light alone, giving the production a sense of stylish simplicity. Video design from Ian William Galloway gives us a Big Brother is Watching dimension, allowing the production to include news reports as a means of increasing both realism and tension when the time is right.

Direction keeps the momentum, but the sheer volume of very short scenes within this adaptation does make the production feel clunky and segmented in places. While stylised set transitions from spinning tables to slow-motion set dressing give the production an additional layer of craftmanship, it doesn’t do enough to create fluidity between ever changing scenes.

Unfortunately, the interval feels an overly long time coming as various suitable end points arrived but moved into yet another brief scene. While this doesn’t undermine the power in the story or the performances, it does make the story feel laborious rather than gripping more than once, which is a shame given the talent at hand. Fewer scenes or better segues are needed to provide a continuation of the style demonstrated in so many other ways in this production.

Blackman’s novel is given a loving outing here. Pilot Theatre manage to bring all the best of the novel and its characters to life while upholding its central message as one which is as vital now as it was when the novel was brought into being: hate and division are taught. Unchecked privilege is corrupting and dangerous; it’s time to break the cycle.

Noughts and Crosses is a co production of Pilot Theatre, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Derby Theatre, Mercury Theatre Colchester and York Theatre Royal. It plays at York Theatre Royal until April 6th 2019 and you can find tickets here.

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